Traveller deaths - Spotlight focuses on a social gulf

THE tragic deaths of 10 members of the Traveller community, the last of whom will be laid to rest in Wexford today, turns a spotlight on a social gulf that existed for generations and brings a glimmer of hope it will diminish following this catastrophe, bringing Travellers and settled people closer together through shared grief and compassion.

Indeed, the age-old rift was brought sharply into focus by the criticism of Fr Dermot lane, parish priest of Balally, which embraces the halting site at Carrickmines where members of the Connors family died in the inferno. Accusing many settled people of failing to empathise with what he called their Traveller brothers and sisters, he urged them to engage in a new consultation process involving local authorities and settled and Traveller communities. He prayed the tragedy would be a turning point in the difficult tasks of healing, reconciliation and mutual trust that lie ahead.

However, as recent events have shown, this is a broad and complex issue, one that calls for a change of attitudes on all sides, something which will not be resolved overnight. There can be no doubt that nimbyism — the ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome — is at the core of objections voiced by settled people whenever a question arises of Travellers moving into their locality. This was starkly seen in the aftermath of the Carrickmines disaster when residents blocked access to a field which the local authority intended turning into a ‘temporary’ halting site for the surviving families.

Significantly, the residents had not been consulted about the move and — secretly — despite the tragic circumstances, they probably had the unspoken sympathy of people in every part of the country. They know ‘temporary’ can be 20 years or more, with no investment in basic facilities for Travellers.

Whatever fears people may harbour about Travellers, and ‘fear’ is the word judging by public reaction to the sheer brutality inflicted on a Tipperary family by a gang made up of Travellers and settled thugs, there is no denying the lives of many Travellers are blighted. For instance, life expectancy among Traveller men today is still at the level it was in the 1940s for settled males. Comparatively speaking, the same is true of Traveller and settled women. In a bid to explain why Travellers suffer from an abnormally high suicide rate compared to society at large, sociologists point to, among other things, a total disregard for education by men in certain families who place no value on education.

Arguably, it would be more desirable if those who seek recognition of cultural ethnicity for Travellers devoted greater energy to the importance of underlining the immense value to be gained from educating all Traveller children to grow up as Irish people, equal in every respect to their neighbours. Education gives a person an edge in life. It means access to work and income. It provides young Travellers with a living, enabling them to pay taxes as full members of society. Rather than living on the fringes, shunned and feared by local communities where the elderly live in terror of being attacked by a violent minority of Travellers, they would as Fr Lane put it, be like the Connors family, well-known and respected.

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